J. K. Rowling, Harvard University Commencement Speech, 2008

J. K. Rowling


By almost any standard, British author J.K. Rowling, the wizard behind Harry Potter, has achieved phenomenal success. Now part of a global franchise, Harry Potter books have been translated into sixty-eight languages, and sold over 400 million copies worldwide, making Rowling one of the wealthiest women in the UK. Born into a middle-class family near Gloucestershire, Rowling’s ascent is an unlikely one. Living in Edinburgh in the early 1990s, several aimless years after graduation, Rowling considered herself an abject failure. Her short first marriage had ended, and she was unemployed, a single mother, and struggling financially. She felt she had let herself and her parents down. ‘By every usual standard I was the biggest failure I knew,’ she later recalled.

In a Harvard commencement speech delivered in 2008, Rowling took up the unexpected benefits of failure and the power of the imagination as her subject. She describes her struggle to find her voice in her fiction, and the fearlessness she found along the way. ‘We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better,’ she said. She concluded with a line from Seneca, the Roman philosopher, which she discovered as an undergraduate still uncertain of her path and which has stuck with her through the years: ‘As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.’

Harvard University Commencement Speech 2008

(See full text: here)

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.

So given a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.

And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

J.K. Rowling